NFBC: Over/undervalued players and adjusting to league trends

One of the biggest lessons learned in youth sports is to learn from our mistakes. It’s a tenet rarely applied to ourselves as fantasy owners since so few of us truly focus on our weaknesses. There’s a reason why you usually see the same friends near the bottom of your home league standings every year. Sure, part of it is that they aren’t as invested, or even as good, as someone like a reader is—someone who properly uses analytical tools and puts in the time required for the grind that is the long and grueling fantasy baseball season.

Perhaps there are roto categories that we typically overdraft, and properly manage over the course of the year, each and every season. One could simply walk into enough strikeouts and home runs to be competitive. What that usually means is there are blind spots in our draft strategy, and conversely, are categories we inherently overlook. Runs, for example, seems like a category that folks never truly actively target and they’re seen as a by-product of all of the other categories. Personally, I’ve identified WHIP as a category I’ve struggled with over the last couple of years, and intend to keep it top of mind in my spring drafts. Not to go so far as to overcompensate, but to be more mindful of it as I build my starting pitcher base earlier on in the draft, since good WHIP is usually hard to come by in the later rounds.

Though the National Fantasy Baseball Championship (NFBC) may sound intimidating to those with game who have yet to take part, it’s important to note that not all of the leagues are “high-stakes” and that you’ll find casual players at almost every league price point. The $50 and $150 NFBC Draft Champions leagues (50-round draft-and-hold slow drafts) are a great first step into the NFBC and also serve as great prep for your home drafts come March, as they allow you to get comfortable with positional tier drop-offs and the player pool. These drafts also slow down your thought process at each round so that you can thoroughly contrast and compare all options at your pick.

Unless someone is truly gutsy and comfortable with it, there’s usually no reason to jump straight into the $1600 live Main Event without at least a season under their belts at a lower level. Not that it’s an impossible task, but the competition at this level is usually stiffer. More importantly, there are many unique nuances at the draft, the twice-weekly lineup moves and FAAB (free agent acquisition budget) that take a bit of getting used to. The ultimate sweet spot for those looking to dive in is the 12-team Online Championship (OC). The OC has an entry fee of $350, pays the top two teams in the league and has an "overall" component where blending a bit of upside in your draft is almost necessary in order to compete for the $100,000 overall prize (usually about 2,000 teams in the mix). No matter what game or price point you intend to enter, many of the tenets hold true throughout, and extend to our home leagues as well.

Adjusting to an ever-changing league

For the second consecutive season, and for the first time since 2000, there were over 100 hitters who slugged over 20 home runs in 2017. Most who take fantasy baseball somewhat seriously understand that power is available all throughout the draft. Oftentimes, late-round power comes with the repercussions of a hurtful batting average and sharp owners are typically mindful of this. But those who build a stronger BA base earlier on their drafts can take their shots with the Chris Davis’ and Lucas Duda’s of the league. Last season, many of the league’s top home run hitters went undrafted in 12-team formats. Specifically, six of the top 16:

Player          Team    ADP   HR   
=============   ====    ===   ==
Aaron Judge     NYY     349   52
Joey Gallo      TEX     436   41
Cody Bellinger  LAD     445   39
Justin Smoak    TOR     541   38
Logan Morrison  TAM     517   38
Ryan Zimmerman  WAS     389   36

Their final longball tallies were likely a bit of a surprise to most, but in retrospect, there was no one truly shocking on that list outside of Morrison. Zimmerman was a seasoned vet with a great supporting cast and was able to avoid the disabled list for the first time in half a decade. Guys like Smoak, Judge and Gallo had been scouted as hard-hitting studs with high strikeout rates. The previous season, it was late-round values like Chris Carter (41 HR), Mike Napoli (34) and Adam Duvall (33) who helped round out teams’ HR and RBI categories. In the ever-evolving Statcast era, it becomes much easier for us to identify those later-round power breakouts, especially if we hear rumblings of specific players working on raising their launch angles and increasing exit velocity. Moreover, we can use BHQ tools like xPX (expected power) to find hitters who may have underperformed in the previous season and are poised for a breakout.

In addition to abundant power, it’s vital that we recognize other league trends as they are developing before our competition does, such as the overall decrease in pure rabbits like Dee Gordon and Billy Hamilton.

As Ron Shandler points out in his opening piece in this year’s Baseball Forecaster, though total number of stolen bases have remained somewhat constant over the last three years (between 2,500 and 2,540), the number of players with 30-plus swipes have dipped into the single digits in two of the last three seasons. Essentially seven, 14 and six players with 30 or more stolen bases from 2015-2017 following an average of 18 such players per season over the previous nine seasons (2006 to 2014). Though we can’t necessarily predict the number of 30-plus rabbits this season, we’re likely to put premiums on the likes of Gordon and Hamilton and perhaps push them up a round if we’d like to be near the top of that category all year long. Drafting a Gordon or Hamilton is scary because they’re always one hamstring tweak away from crushing us in that category, so it’s usually wise to double-down late-round rabbits like Jonathan Villar, Mallex Smith and Jarrod Dyson. Of course, the safer, alternative strategy here is to target a handful of the 10 to 25 SB guys throughout the draft to be more risk-averse and have better balance.

Additionally, we caught a glimpse of how the 10-day DL affected overall starting pitcher innings in 2017. Coupling that with the emergence of super-bullpens (like we saw with the Astros in the playoffs) makes us wonder how many starting pitchers we can truly count on for 200 semi-solid innings. The MLB, after all, is a copycat league, with sharp management keeping tabs on what works and what wins. It’s likely we see a larger influx of teams with above average bullpens in 2018 be ever more mindful about SP pitch counts and attacking with the lefty and righty middle relievers earlier on in games.

Last Year’s Bums vs Last Year’s Breakouts

Over a decade ago, our old friend Gene McCaffrey coined the term ‘Last Year’s Bums’ to denote players who may have underperformed for a variety of reasons (usually injury-related) who are underpriced at their ADPs and are likely to turn a profit. We as fantasy players must be discerning as to which players fit the bill for the upcoming season. Though it’s certainly possible someone like Carlos Gonzalez falls in that category for 2018, we need to do our own homework to see if that’s the case. A 32-year old CarGo comes cheap to us this year (286 ADP) and could be worth biting on if we believe he sticks with the Rockies this season and that he’s not yet over-the-hill. Perhaps a myriad of injuries (including a power-sapping shoulder issue as well as sleep problems) was cause for the decline of both his raw roto cats and almost all underlying metrics outside of walk-rate (10.5 percent in 2017 was a career best). We did see the resurgence of Zimmerman with a full year of health under his belt, as well as other examples such as Mark Reynolds (30 HR at age 34) and know that there are always last year’s bums we can unearth in those late rounds.

Here’s a list of potential Last Year’s Bum (LYB) candidates whose price tags have fallen dramatically from this time last year primarily because of underperformance or injury. Identifying the right ones from this group and targeting them in your drafts is a great way to pounce on profit.

*sorted by 2017 ADP

Player           Team   Games Played 2017  2018 ADP   2017 ADP
==============   ====   =================  ========   =========
Trevor Story     COL            145          111         28
Xander Bogaerts  BOS            148           82         29
Ryan Braun       MIL            104          107         44
Jonathan Lucroy  FA             123          175         55
Gregory Polanco  PIT            108          158         61
Ian Desmond      COL             95          113         72
Hanley Ramirez   BOS            133          324         76
Todd Frazier     NYY            147          274         77
Chris Davis      BAL            128          244         81
Matt Kemp        LAD            115          273         95
David Dahl       COL              0          251        125

Bogaerts, Story and Frazier did not miss many games last season, but missed the mark significantly from their ADPs. With Story and Frazier, damaging batting averages and hitting lower in their respective lineups than anticipated led to them falling far short of value, while Bogaerts was considered overpriced as a late second-rounder in 15-teamers in many high-stakes circles. Though many of his metrics remained within mere points of his 2016 season (h%, ct%, bb%, xBA), Bogaerts saw a major drop-off in both power (from 21 HR to 10) and average (.294 to .273). Bogaerts is more aptly priced this year and has a much better shot at matching or exceeding value in 2018.

Lucroy missed 39 games, but was truly damaging to fantasy owners who likely had him in their lineups for most of the season, continuously waiting for him to "get back to normal." Lucroy never did, posting career lows across the board. Ramirez and Kemp’s ADPs have dropped drastically and rightfully so, with plenty of red flags surrounding both. More so with Hanley who had offseason shoulder surgery and truly appears to be in the twilight of his career. Kemp may be undervalued considering he may still be dealt to an AL team where he can DH full time and won’t subject a team to his horrendous outfield defense.

We may each have our own best candidates for this year’s LYB, but to this analyst, Polanco, Dahl and Davis stick out like sore thumbs. The 6’5’’ southpaw bat of Polanco appears to be underpriced given his prime years ahead and some positive signs despite an injury-marred season (career best ct%, similar Eye as previous two seasons). The price tag appears to have fallen too far (11th round in 15-team leagues) given his 20/20 potential with a full year’s health (he went 20/17 in 2016). Dahl appears to be ready for spring training and could be the ultimate LYB given his potential to contribute to all five standard roto cats. He fits the mold of a NFBC player with upside worth chasing in the later rounds. Not to mention where he’ll see half of his at-bats. Finally, Davis’ 40-HR days may be numbered, but he could be a fit for teams who have built a solid BA-base and are looking for discounted power. Davis was hampered by the almighty oblique strain, which is a painful and annoying injury that affects one’s ability to sleep, let alone hit major league pitching.

Though an entire article can be devoted to it, a quick note on the opposite of LYB’s. Chasing last year’s overpriced breakout players is a rookie mistake and essentially buying into a repeat; something which is more often than not, unlikely, and is an annual blind spot of ours. There are always exceptions, and that will be the case again this year. That’s why paying attention to team context, opportunity, injury history and fanalytics is vital. A few sprinkled within this year’s top 60 overall who you’re basically paying top dollar for 2017 numbers include Cody Bellinger (ADP: 25), Elvis Andrus (51), Tommy Pham (61), Jonathan Schoop (62) and Whit Merrifield (68). Repeating or exceeding is possible for members of this group, so it should be fun to revisit at them at the end of the season as a case study.

Though not all their leagues are high-stakes, the NFBC is the perfect place to take one’s fantasy game to the next level. Identifying last year’s bums, avoiding "buying high" and staying ahead of overall roto category and league trends can be helpful with being successful in this format, winning your league and competing for that lucrative overall prize.

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  For more information about the terms used in this article, see our Glossary Primer.